U-Boat Commander Oskar Kusch
Anatomy of a Nazi-Era Betrayal and Judicial Murder
Annapolis, Maryland, US: Naval Institute Press, 2020
Hardcover 384pp RRP A$64.25
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, October 2020
In early 1944 Oberleutnants zur See Oskar Kusch, the commanding officer of U-154 was charged with “continually and publicly paralysing or eroding the will of the German people to self-assert themselves militarily and undermining the discipline of the German military”, and also for listening to Allied radio broadcasts while on patrol. Found guilty by a court martial and refusing to ask for clemency, Oscar Kusch was executed by firing squad in Kiel on 12 May 1944.
This case was the subject of Die Tragädie das Oberleutnants zur See Oskar Kusch, by Heinrich Walle, published in 1995, but as this was published only in German, Eric Rust’s is the first authoritative study in English.
Oskar Kusch was the son of liberal parents and spent his youth in the bündisch movement until it was subsumed by the Hitlerjugend. He was accepted as a naval cadet in Crew 37a (his year of entry as a naval cadet) and after service in the cruiser Emden he reported to the U-boat Training Command in April 1942. By the late spring of 1943 the U-boats had lost the initiative in the North Atlantic and when Kusch was appointed as commanding officer of U-154 his two patrols were to the South and Central Atlantic.
There is no evidence that Oskar Kusch was other than an effective officer, but as a liberal non-Nazi he held discussions with his officers in which he attempted to educate them to the fallacies and inconsistencies of Nazi doctrine and war aims. In the cramped confines of a Type IX U-boat it was inevitable that these discussions would be overheard by others. These ‘unpatriotic’ discussions infuriated two of Kusch’s officers, especially the fanatical National Socialist Ulrich Abel, and both began to keep diaries recording what they saw as Kusch’s disloyalty.
Oskar Kusch had recommended Ulrich Abel for command and when U-154 returned to Lorient in December 1943, Abel left for a training course at the Third U-Boat Training Division in the Baltic. Rather than submitting a report on his commanding officer to the flotilla commander in Lorient, where the matter might have been dealt with administratively, he ‘stabbed Kusch in the back’ by submitting it to the training division. This inevitably set in motion the Kriegsmarine discipline system with Kusch’s arrest and court martial at Kiel.
This discipline system was fatally compromised with higher authority letting it be known, before a trial, the desired verdict and penalty. In this case the prosecutor had only asked for a prison sentence, but the U-boat fleet was under great pressure and Heinrich Hagerman, the chief judge, decided to make an example of Kusch, possibly like Admiral Byng “pour encourager les autres” and sentenced him to death.
Eric Rust gives a comprehensive description of Oskar Kusch’s early life, his naval service including his two patrols as captain of U-154, his trial and also the post-war trials of Hagerman for crimes against humanity, in which he was found not guilty. The way in which Kusch felt free to criticize National Socialism may be surprising, but the compromised naval justice system and the German post-war reluctance to pursue war crimes after the trials of the major war criminals at Nuremburg should not surprise. Eric Rust provides an insight into U-boat operations in 1943 and what can happen when the justice system becomes compromised and the difference between political and military offences disappears.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.